Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Why Sridevi still remains an enigma

The veteran and hugely talented actress continues to dazzle - on-screen and off-screen

By Khalid Mohamed
May 5, 2017
Sridevi with Khalid Mohamed, on the sets of Gumraah (circa 1993)
Now, who wouldn't agree that there's something about Sridevi? Scheduled to reappear in a leading role in a film titled Mom - come mid-July - this won't be her bid at a comeback. Officially proclaimed to be 53 years old, the diva has already done that with the serial Malini Iyer, which didn't do her justice, winding up within a year after its premiere in 2004. Then, there was the film English Vinglish (2012), which was commercially successful. Her agile performance - as a housewife who must polish up her angrezi skills - was thumbed up by the toughest critics.

That she didn't snag any high-profile awards for English Vinglish is just one of those things. If she was disappointed, she maintained a dignified silence. Good for her. Whenever there have been acrimonious controversies, the once-Chennai-anchored actress has infallibly chosen to go off the radar. Expectedly, when reports claimed that the storyline of the upcoming Mom, about a mother on a vendetta mission, shared similarities with the lately-released Maatr, toplining Raveena Tandon, again, there were no comments.

Sridevi with Mithun in Jaag Utha Insaan
Sridevi's habitual silence has served her well. The way it did when a leading film magazine, way back in 1984, carried a scoop about her 'secret' marriage with Mithun Chakraborty during the filming of Jaag Utha Insaan (1984). Mithun denied the marriage, but to this day it isn't clear whether they did tie the knot.

When Sridevi did eventually marry producer Boney Kapoor, the media went into an overdrive. How could she? The producer was already married, and a father of two. In the tradition of Hema Malini and the married Dharmendra, the Sridevi-Boney Kapoor marriage set off a furore, which died a natural death with time.

The private life of Sridevi has always been under the scanner. Director Ram Gopal Varma declared his abiding fascination for her, going to the degree of stating it loud and clear in the dialogue of one his films Mast (1999). How embarrassing was that? The not-so-obscure subject of Varma's desire handled the public confession with a sense of humour. Boney Kapoor wasn't as amused though.

Which brings me to the core point of the column today: Sridevi is nobody's fool. She has handled calumnies galore by just being retentive and keeping her cool. Over the decades, I've known and interviewed the actress - ever since she made a lasting impact with the role of a mentally-challenged girl in Sadma (1983) - she has responded to questions with monosyllables and telegraphic sentences. On being quizzed why her debut as a heroine in a Hindi film Solva Saawan (1979) opposite Amol Palekar had tanked, she had no reply but the mandatory "How do I know?" shrug.

When Himmatwala (1983), with Jeetendra, became a huge hit, and she was tagged with the title of Thunder Thighs, she neither objected nor approved. "It's okay with me," seemed to be her attitude. Frankly, despite the fact that Sridevi persists in being inarticulate, she's still a delight to interview. Her half-smiles, the arch of an eyebrow and the alarmed look in her eyes - on being tossed a probing question - convey what's exactly going on in her mind. And she takes care to be politically correct. When the grapevine had buzzed with the news that she had been offered a role by the production company of Steven Spielberg, no less, she had looked awfully sorry, and added, "I had to refuse an offer from Spielberg-ji." Perhaps that was the first and last time anyone has added a 'ji' to Spielberg. Quite a charming denial, really!

Sridevi's acting career, kicking off as a child artiste circa 1967, is certainly a daunting one. Yet, her legion of admirers aren't ever likely to know about the anxieties and pressures she must have faced and overcome. Even if she were to surrender herself to an authorised biography, it would be redundant. The real Sridevi just isn't the sort to stand up and tell all. Vis-à-vis her dancing skills as well as her emotive power before the camera, she has never attempted to delve into herself, apportioning the credit to her directors and to that element called 'spontaneity'. Fair enough. Because artistes who keep secrets about their metier are the most enigmatic ones.

About the only time I was surprised by an answer in the course of an interview was when she disclosed that she's a regular watcher of Hollywood's horror movies. "I saw this film about tomatoes that become violent creatures," she stated. "I was so scared I didn't dare sleep all night. That was my only solution to avoid a nightmare."

So that's Sridevi for you. Never mind her placid exterior, she's as vulnerable to horror as any of us. This combination of reserve and frailty does show up in her performances consistently.

Who knows whether the upcoming Mom will turn out to be a dream of a movie or a nightmare? Just for Sridevi, tight-lipped off-screen but super-expressive on-screen, I'll be there for its first-day-first-show to evidence if yesteryear's Chandni and Chaalbaaz still spells magic. 

Feature posted at WKND here.

See entire archive of Sridevi interviews and features by Khalid Mohamed here.

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